Patrick touts impact of criminal record reforms

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DORCHESTER, MASS., DEC. 18, 2014…A web-based system for criminal background checks is helping ex-offenders in Massachusetts apply for jobs and other opportunities without being automatically disqualified, while sentencing reform has led to nearly 400 inmates serving drug offense sentences getting released to parole, according to state officials.

Since a new criminal offender record information (CORI) system was rolled out in May 2012, after legislators passed a CORI reform law in 2010, the system has seen 334,987 access requests, according to Executive Office of Public Safety data released at a criminal justice summit.

“In 82.3% of those cases (265,456) the individual had no adult criminal record,” according to the secretariat’s review. “For the remaining 17.7% (57,029), the new screening criteria prevented the dissemination of outdated CORI information, promoting a system response of ‘No Available CORI.’ That means that 57,029 times over the last 30 months, ex-offenders applying for jobs, housing, financial aid, volunteer or other opportunities were not compromised by the dissemination of irrelevant criminal offender record information by the state.”

The 2010 law required removal of questions related to criminal history from certain employment applications and reduced the “look-back period” for when misdemeanors and felonies could appear on standard CORI checks, to five years instead of 10 years for a misdemeanor, and 10 years instead of 15 years for a felony. Administration officials also reported that criminal records requests that once took weeks to process and were difficult to read are now “processed immediately and are easy to understand.”

A 2012 law reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, lowered the school zone violation for drug distribution to 300 feet from 1,000 feet, and relaxed work-release eligibility for inmates serving minimum mandatory sentences for drug distribution and trafficking offenses.

According to the Executive Office of Public Safety, the Department of Correction has identified 1,432 inmates serving drug sentences whose penalties were affected by sentencing reform.

Of those inmates, 1,208 had their parole eligibility dates adjusted downward and 734 inmates were given parole hearing dates. About 391 inmates have been released to parole, according to the secretariat.

Officials at Thursday’s summit at UMass-Boston promoted “progress” in the criminal justice system, with Gov. Deval Patrick touting the CORI system changes as well as sentencing and prisoner re-entry reforms initiated during his eight-year tenure.

“These reforms mean that corrections officials can focus time, space and limited public dollars on violent offenders,” Patrick said.

Patrick also extolled an overhaul of the state Parole Board and said violent crime in the Bay State is at its lowest point since the early 1980s, having decreased 33 percent between 1988 and 2012.

“In our targeted cities, overall crime victimization — which is the most reliable measure of criminal activity — is down significantly and we’ll have new numbers to report on that on Monday,” Patrick said.

Patrick added that 126 patients have moved from Bridgewater State Hospital to Department of Mental Health facilities and the use of restraints at the hospital has dropped by 84 percent. Patrick filed a bill earlier this year, a version of which is currently in the House, after reports of excessive use of restraints at the state hospital and the death of a 23-year-old inmate, which was ruled a homicide.

Speaking with reporters after his speech, Patrick listed his unsuccessful effort to amend the state’s 2012 habitual offender law to include some judicial discretion as one piece of “unfinished business” from his term in office.

“There’s unfinished business, there’s no doubt about it and I would put that on a short list of things we tried to do that we didn’t fully accomplish,” Patrick said, adding that further action could occur due to recent polling that shows “the public is ready to start thinking about a more thoughtful, more individual way of dealing with those who break the law.”

Legislative leaders in 2012 promised Patrick they would revisit sentencing reforms but the issue never surfaced for serious consideration during the 2013-2014 session.

[Mike Deehan contributing reporting]

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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